No country is properly prepared for a bird flu pandemic, the U.S. health secretary said in Indonesia on Monday, adding that efforts were being stepped up to boost a network of surveillance to detect the virus.
Mike Leavitt was speaking after visiting four other nations in Southeast Asia in the past week, a region where more than 60 people have died from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza and the most likely epicenter of any human pandemic.
"It would be my assessment that no nation is adequately prepared for a pandemic avian flu. (However) I believe that most nations are improving and preparation is increasing," Leavitt said after meeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
"We are working with our neighbors and friends from around the world to create a network of surveillance so that we can as quickly as possible determine when or if the virus becomes rapidly transmittable between humans."
Concerns have grown in Europe in recent days after tests confirmed the disease in poultry in Romania and Turkey.
No human cases have been reported in Europe, but the World Health Organization said it was worried European countries might divert funding and attention away from Southeast Asia.
Leavitt, who has said fighting the disease at the farm level was a top priority, said surveillance was vital.
"If one thinks of the world as though it were a vast forest, if there is a spark in the forest and you are there to see it, you are able to simply snuff it out," Leavitt said.
"However if it's allowed to burn for an hour or two hours, it often becomes uncontainable. The only thing possible then is to try to move people or assets out of its way."
Earlier, Jakarta's Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said the United States would help Indonesia through laboratory upgrades, but was worried about urban concentrations of chickens.
She cited central Jakarta where she said there were 200 places where large numbers of chickens were being raised.
"This is a very serious problem. At first I could not imagine such a thing … They also can't," she said, referring to the United States.
In the past week, Leavitt has traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to get information on the virus.
The United States has pledged $25 million to the region for training, supplies, lab equipment, village-based surveillance systems and public education.
There have been five confirmed cases of bird flu in humans in Indonesia since July, comprising three deaths and two people being treated.
Some health experts worry Indonesia is not showing enough urgency in tackling bird flu. There has been virtually no mass culling of chickens, while Indonesian officials note that countries such as Vietnam have had more deaths.
In Manila, the World Health Organization warned that attention should not drift from Southeast Asia as the virus showed up in birds in Europe.
"There's a lot of anxiety (in Europe)," said Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the WHO in Manila.
"Quite clearly, the result of this could be that governments might focus on domestic preparedness and forget the fact that ground zero is Southeast Asia."
Cordingley said the feared mutation of the virus into a form that is easily transmitted between humans was most likely to take place in Southeast Asia, where millions of birds have been culled in an attempt to limit the disease's spread.
Experts say the fight against bird flu in Asia is being hampered by huge differences in wealth between countries.
Some countries still have no stockpiles of the expensive anti-viral drugs that could help limit a human pandemic and have poor public health infrastructure.